Sgt. Kevin Benderman is no one’s idea of a typical antiwar activist.
Forty-one years old and built like a linebacker, he has a deep, commanding voice with a distinct Southern accent. Given to neither hyperbole nor overly demonstrative gestures, he speaks and moves slowly, but with quiet confidence.
Until the moment in 2005 when he was convicted of “missing movement” -- failing to re-deploy to Iraq for a second tour after being reassigned to Fort Stewart’s Third Infantry Division -- he had a sterling record to show from his ten-year military career, going back to the first Gulf War.
In page after page of glowing recommendations, Benderman’s superiors in the First Squadron of the 10th Cavalry Regiment, Fourth Infantry Division, laud his resourcefulness, his commitment to teamwork, and his courage in the face of the enemy.
But sometime during Benderman’s six months in Iraq, something changed.
In 2004, he took the drastic step of applying for Conscientious Objector, or CO, status. While there’s an accepted procedure for becoming a CO, it’s a lengthy process with many legal and bureaucratic obstacles and no guarantee of success.
His application was rejected, and when he didn’t show up for deployment -- Benderman maintains he was given leave while his CO application was pending -- the Army arrested him. Though initially facing 17 years worth of potential charges, including desertion, by the time his trial concluded in July 2005 Benderman was convicted only of missing movement. He was released last August after doing 13 months of a 15-month sentence in the regional military correction facility -- “stockade,” in old school lingo -- at Ft. Lewis, Washington.
I spoke with Benderman and his wife Monica at their quiet, cozy home off an easy-to-miss side street in Hinesville, Ga., not far from Ft. Stewart’s main gate, where they live with her son Ryan, three dogs and a family of cats.
Monica also defies stereotypes. Far from the usual image of a docile, sheltered and long-suffering military wife, she exhibits a quick, articulate wit and shows a deep understanding not only of her husband but of the world at large and how it works.
The Bendermans have harsh words for what they see as the backward priorities of the military system -- and of the society that supports it -- but they’re also blunt in their assessment of the peace activists who have latched on to the couple as the latest cause celebre.
Rolling their eyes at the mention of Cindy Sheehan, the Bendermans regard much of the antiwar movement as undisciplined and counterproductive to what’s really important: Guaranteeing soldiers’ rights under the law, the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the U.S. Constitution.
Connect Savannah: Kevin, what was Ft. Lewis like?
Kevin Benderman: It’s an older facility, built in 1952 or thereabouts. I had to go through a three-day evaluation before I went in. They bring a chaplain in, and then a mental health guy. I guess they want to make sure you’re not going to commit suicide. Most of the prisoners are put in bays, with several guys to each bay. There are some individual rooms for solitary confinement, I guess for the troublemakers.
Connect Savannah: You weren’t a troublemaker?
Kevin Benderman: (laughs) I guess some people would say I was the biggest troublemaker. But some of the guys I did time with had actually been charged with murder for things they’d done in Iraq. They told me they were just following orders their commanders had given.
Connect Savannah: You’ve done your time, but you’re not done with this case. What’s the goal of your current appeal?
Kevin Benderman: My goal is to get the conviction overturned. I want to be reinstated, and go back to being honorably discharged as a sergeant. I’m definitely not going back to Iraq.
Connect Savannah: You say you weren’t the only guy in your unit to not go back.
Kevin Benderman: After I was charged, and before the trial started -- a period of about seven months -- they had me processing soldiers who had gone AWOL. Here I was supposedly a “deserter,” and the Army put me in charge of a bunch of guys who had gone AWOL. I was walking around free the whole seven months. They let me go on leave and everything.
We had one guy who had basically been AWOL for four or five years. He even used the GI Bill to get a degree. He was finally arrested in Texas on a public intoxication charge and brought back, and the army put me in charge of him.
There was another guy who actually lived right near here. His sergeant would go by his house to get him to report for duty, and he’d just sit there smoking a joint and tell his sergeant, no I’m not gonna go. All that happened to him was he got kicked out with a less than honorable discharge.
My battalion S2 officer -- that’s an intelligence officer -- was selling body armor plates on eBay and pocketing the money. Not the vests themselves, but the plates that go inside. They convicted him, gave him 45 days confinement and made him resign his commission. That’s it. As far as I know they didn’t even make him pay back any of the money he made.
They told me the reason they had to make an example of me was because by not going back to Iraq, I was putting other soldiers at risk. And here’s this intelligence officer going on eBay and selling body armor meant for our soldiers.
Connect Savannah: So did you actually “miss movement” as the Army maintains?
Kevin Benderman: No, that’s erroneous. I was called into a meeting to discuss my CO application. At the end of the meeting they specifically released me from that assignment. Just to make sure, I asked two more times, and got an affirmative answer each time. It was just a cooked-up charge after the fact.
Connect Savannah: You had actually just reenlisted not long before the war started.
Kevin Benderman: I reenlisted in 2002. So that would have put me out of the Army in October 2005. But then they put a stop/loss order out that would have kept me in until April 2006. That happened all over. Some guys have been extended again and again, until God knows when. If they hadn’t done that, I could have just waited until 2005 to get out and then gone on my merry way -- which was what I originally intended to do.
Connect Savannah: Set the scene for us as you deployed to Iraq with a Bradley fighting vehicle maintenance company.
Kevin Benderman: We first got to Kuwait in March 2003. We took our vehicles off the ships and established a vehicle maintenance area to prepare to cross the berm into Iraq. We got into Iraq the first week in April and went to an area about 50 miles south of Baghdad. We went from there up to Tikrit, and from Tikrit up to Khanaqin. That’s about six miles from Iran. We actually had a small group of Bradleys and tanks positioned looking into Iran. We could see Iranian soldiers over the border watching us watching them.
We were positioned as a forward repair unit. It was set up so we followed guys directly into combat. But wherever you are, you’re never completely out of danger over there. You’re always taking mortar fire and getting shot at. They were telling us about IEDs almost as soon as we got there, long before those became commonly used.
The first real operation we were tasked with was guarding an abandoned oil pumping station.
Connect Savannah: Was guarding an oil well the initial thing that made you question why you were in Iraq?
Kevin Benderman: Well, that’s part of it. To my mind there was no military objective there. But it’s a lot of things. It’s hard to put six months of experience into one interview.
I looked at these young kids I was over there with, and they all seemed to think it was kind of a video game -- that they could just push a reset button and start over. One day I was going down a highway in an armored personnel carrier, a 113, and my driver was this 18 or 19-year-old kid. We were moving up Highway One and came under fire from small arms. It turned out to be a few people in a van shooting at us with AK-47s. So we all pulled our vehicles into the classic herringbone pattern for defense, like we’re trained to do in situations like that. Next thing I know my driver had jumped up into the hatch with a video camera. We were getting shot at and the first thing this kid wanted to do was poke his head out and videotape stuff! I told him to put the damn camera down and pick up his rifle. I said, I don’t want to have to tell your mom I let her son get killed because he wanted to videotape something.
But I don’t bash these kids. It’s just their mechanism for dealing with the insanity of it all.
Connect Savannah: You’ve said repeatedly there was no one moment that made you decide not to go back to Iraq.
Kevin Benderman: There was no epiphany, if that’s what you mean. The angels didn’t come down and sing in my ear. It was basically the cumulative effect of seeing what happens to people who are in these warzones, the soldiers and the people who live there.
One day we were driving along a highway into Baghdad. There was an older woman and a little girl walking on the side of the road. As we drove by, we saw that one of the little girl’s arms was burned up. It was all black. We kept on going. The mission didn’t dictate that we stop to help a little girl with a burned-up arm.
Monica Benderman: People preach this epiphany thing, that some light is supposed to come down. But if they’re really honest about it, they’ll see that the point where the light sort of comes on is actually the result of an accumulation of events. It’s part of anyone’s educational process. It’s when all that knowledge you’ve stored up finally comes together.
Connect Savannah: You say you oppose all war, but clearly there was something about this particular war that finally brought you to your decision.
Kevin Benderman: We all have a concept of a situation, but until we experience it we can’t know for sure what it’s like. I wasn’t in Vietnam or World War II or Korea. But I know if they’re all like this one...
If you take the names off the wars and look at them all for what they are, it’s just people killing other people. My father, who did serve in World War II, tried to explain it to me one day. It wasn’t until I was in Iraq that I fully understood what he was trying to tell me. When you cut right down to it, war is just base killing. You don’t realize that until you’ve been there.
I’ve been there. I’ve seen a mass grave filled with rotting bodies of women and children. When you’ve got to stay there and beat the dogs away so they won’t dig up the bodies and eat them, man, it’s a whole different program.
I turned on CNN one day and they were like (mimics nasal voice of a self-important TV reporter), “And here we see the smart bomb, going down the AC shaft into this part of the building, where it will then make a ninety-degree right turn and target this office.”
But right down the street from that same building -- do you know what a Vulcan anti-aircraft gun is?
Connect Savannah: Yeah. Six-barrel 20mm Gatling gun, fires 100 rounds a second.
Kevin Benderman: Yeah. Right down from that same building was where we bulldozed the bodies of Iraqis we hit with the Vulcans. We just bulldozed them all into a mass grave and covered them up, hundreds of them.
Connect Savannah: What was left of them.
Kevin Benderman: What was left of them.
Each individual has to make up his or her own mind. I didn’t do this to lead a group of soldiers into doing the same thing, or going AWOL or anything like that. The only person I talked to about it was my wife. I tried to talk to a chaplain, but the first one I talked to didn’t seem that interested.
I guess in this Jerry Springer world we live in, no one wants to hear that I really only talked to my wife and family about it.
Connect Savannah: How did the military first respond to your CO application?
Kevin Benderman: There’s a clear outline of the process. You fill out that form -- it’s a form for personal action, kind of a catchall form. So I gave it to my company commander. What he’s supposed to do then is to set up a mental health evaluation and a visit with the chaplain, to make sure you’re not crazy and to make sure you’re sincere.
When you first join you don’t get any of that. You can sign up and say you want to go kill people, and you don’t get evaluated for mental health. But you tell them you don’t want to kill anybody, and then they want to evaluate your mental health.
Anyway, I guess my company commander decided to do his own evaluation, and he evidently determined I was insincere. He threw the form back in my face and said, “Get out of my office. You’re on your own.”
Monica Benderman: If they had handled his CO application according to regulations, everything else wouldn’t have happened the way it has. They were challenged by his sincerity, and everything that’s happened since was a result of that challenge. He was asking questions of them.
Connect Savannah: That’s the key right there. I’m trying to get to the bottom of how Kevin, in particular, came to ask those questions. He doesn’t fit the profile.
Kevin Benderman: I actually started talking with a chaplain in May of 2004, about my feelings that war is wrong. I didn’t want to take lightly my commitment to the military, and the commitment of my family history on both sides. My family has a tradition of military service going back to the American Revolution.
Growing up in the South with that Southern military tradition -- my dad was from Tennessee, I was born in Alabama -- to be a military Southern man was to be at a very, very high status. There are monuments to the Civil War -- I hate that phrase -- the War Between the States everywhere in the South. Growing up I had that big bag of 10,000 army men. We used to go shooting with a BB gun in the woods, play cowboys and Indians. So I always had that commitment, that sense of duty and respect for what the military was.
But the first chaplain I talked to seemed to take it as more of a philosophical conversation. He didn’t really get what I was trying to explain to him. I mean, my company commander ordered us to shoot kids.
Connect Savannah: That would be enough for me right there.
Kevin Benderman: We had taken over an old customs building in the PUK, the area controlled by the Kurds. It had been abandoned and there were still stacks of paper, stacks of records and forms, all over the place. The Kurdish fighters, the peshmerga, were basically our friends, but we told them they had to leave the area.
There was this brick wall about six feet tall around the customs building. These 8, 9, 10-year-old kids would always be climbing on top of the wall, saying “USA Number One,” or “Saddam a donkey” -- that being a big insult over there.
Occasionally some of the kids would pick up these little stones that were all over the place -- pebbles really -- and throw them our way. It was no big deal. This wasn’t like 18-year-olds throwing big rocks. We’re talking little kids. I’d just go over and tell them to cut it out and give them some chocolate or something.
Monica Benderman: I used to send bags of hard candy for you guys to hand out to them.
Kevin Benderman: I ended up kind of adopting one kid -- of course his name would have to be Mohammed (laughs). It’s like “John” over there.
Monica Benderman: He adopted dogs, too. We’d send biscuits sometimes.
Kevin Benderman: So one day the company commander says, “If any of those kids gets back on that wall, shoot ‘em.”
Connect Savannah: What did you do then?
Kevin Benderman: We all just sort of looked at each other, like, “What?” My initial reaction was that he was out of his fucking mind. I mean, is the guy that scared that he has to say things like that?
Monica Benderman: You look at some of these situations that have come up since then, with soldiers being accused of things, and ask, “How can something like this happen?” Well, this is how. You’ve got a bunch of 18, 19, 20-year-old kids over there, told to always follow orders, and some company commander says, “Shoot ‘em.”
Kevin Benderman: You’ve got to understand -- it probably sounds funny to you -- but you’ve got to get a real game mindset going. So these young guys are all getting pumped up while they sit around at Ft. Hood, Texas, waiting to go. We were first told to expect to go to Iraq beginning in December 2002. I mean, I didn’t expect to still be in the United States at Christmas of that year.
So you all get pumped up... and don’t go. Get pumped up... and don’t go. Meanwhile we’ve all got images of glory in our heads about coming down through Turkey and kicking down doors and taking names.
Monica Benderman: A soldier doesn’t prepare alone. His whole family prepares, his wife prepares, his children prepare. Your entire life is put on hold. Everything’s entirely out of your hands.
I could see the level of frustration build. From January through March of 2003, especially, every week was like that. You could see it in everybody, I could see it in him. Finally everybody was like, “Let’s get this over with. Let’s just go and get it done.”
Kevin Benderman: These are not bad people per se. This is just what war turns you into. The military doesn’t want anyone who can think. You’re told when to eat, what to eat, when to sleep, when to go to the bathroom, how to wipe, when to brush your teeth, how long to brush your teeth. You’re just bombarded constantly with orders and instructions about every little detail of your life.
Monica Benderman: I think everybody, every American citizen, should go to a military base, spend some time there, and see how it is. You can get a one-day pass. Drive around and see for yourself what you’re paying for. See everything they have laid out for these soldiers.
They’re sent to basic training and broken down completely, told that all of their thinking will be done for them. Then they’re put on a military installation -- and usually not paid enough money to buy a car so they can go off the installation. They live in barracks on the installation, eat there, shop there, everything’s right there for them. They have youth groups just for the installation. There are neighborhood associations, with neighborhood association presidents and everything, all just on base.
If you never assimilate, then what happens when you get to Iraq and are given orders? You follow the orders. It’s all they know.
Connect Savannah: Yet neither of you identifies with the antiwar movement.
Kevin Benderman: I’d hate to be placed within that group. I didn’t go to Canada.
Most of these activists are at the opposite end of the spectrum from what we’ve been talking about. Most of them we’ve met have no personal discipline whatsoever. You go in their houses and it’s full of filth. They come out on the weekends with their banners and do their vigils and then go back to their jobs on Monday.
But where’s the substance in what they’re doing? Where’s the responsibility of a U.S. citizen that the Constitution gave us? When do you accept the responsibility that goes along with these rights?
Monica Benderman: There’s always a need for order. That’s what peace is all about. If you’re chaotic in your thoughts and your actions, that’s not very peaceful, is it?
They’re always telling the soldiers, “Oh, go AWOL, just stop fighting, just walk away.” But they’re not going to pay that soldier’s legal bills or his house payments or his truck payments. Believe me, I know!
They want soldiers to stop fighting because it’s an illegal war. But until some legal authority makes that decision, you can’t just say it’s an illegal war. How can you complain about a war being illegal if you’re not following the law yourself? What you have to do is set up the laws and follow them so that soldiers can speak out, so that they don’t have to go to jail for three years.
Recently some church was offering sanctuary for any soldier that deserted. I said, are you crazy? Don’t give them sanctuary! That leads to ruin.
Kevin Benderman: Don’t tell soldiers to break laws. That’s ignorant. I can’t tell you how many Vietnam-era guys have come up to me and said, “I wish I had had the guts to do what you’re doing instead of running.”
Monica Benderman: A lot of people put Kevin on a pedestal and say, “Oh thank you, thank you for making such a sacrifice” -- the part they don’t say is, he’s willing to lose everything so we don’t have to.
We’re like, wait a minute -- by us stepping up we’re trying to get people to see that ordinary people can do this for themselves. Then it’s not our “sacrifice” anymore.
Some woman called us from Wisconsin the other day. She said, “You answered the phone!” I said, well, yeah, it’s our phone, I usually do. She said, “I hear dogs barking in the background!” I said, yes, we have three and they sometimes bark. She started crying! She said, “That’s so beautiful.”
She couldn’t believe we were normal people doing normal things. I told her, “And right now I’m mopping the kitchen floor, in my bare feet. Sometimes I even mop it twice a day.”
Connect Savannah: But by the same token, you’ve made speeches to antiwar groups and done interviews with some of the more antiwar media outlets.
Monica Benderman: We learned early on that we have to step up major pressure to get any results. We have to be as public as we can about it to get the appeal process started. There are some guys that have already served full sentences waiting on a convening authority. And this is all to get the commander to just do the right thing.
Connect Savannah: It seems like with this war real leadership seems to be lacking at all levels. The same mistakes keep getting made over and over. Can you explain that?
Monica Benderman: That’s people that don’t know versus the people that do know. You get these officers coming in just out of Officers Candidate School with no experience, usually with English degrees, and they take command of these units with a lot of older guys, hardened veterans with experience, like Kevin. They figure they’ve gone this far and they have to continue to look like they know what they’re doing even though they’ve made so many mistakes.
Look, we’ve been over there longer than we were in World War II, OK? And they just keep digging the hole deeper and deeper. They can’t bring themselves to admit they’ve made mistakes, take responsibility, and correct their mistakes. So they just keep filling the pot. It’s a pride thing.
Kevin Benderman: It’s an arrogance thing, more than that. Prideful arrogance.
Connect Savannah: The legal appeal of your conviction isn’t free.
Kevin Benderman: We have a fund going for legal defense, and any money we collect over the lawyer’s fee is going to go to start a foundation to help get the word out about these issues, about soldier’s rights under the Constitution. We just want to put this out there and get people to take on more of a sense of responsibility about soldier’s rights, so soldiers can get proper body armor, better care when they come back home, things like that.
Did you know between the first and second deployments to Iraq there were 191 documented cases of child abuse that took place at Ft. Stewart? That’s just on the installation, and just in the time between those two deployments. And that’s just what got reported.
Monica Benderman: Civilians have oversight of the military, but the flip side of that is civilians need to understand what’s being asked of the military. The whole reason these soldiers are doing what they’re doing is to defend the Constitution. That’s what Kevin was doing when he realized he had to take other actions. But even then he followed the guidelines laid out for him in the Constitution and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. It was other people who let the system break down.
The Constitution is the outline for this country, and it’s based on what? The laws of humanity. A conscientious objector is adhering to these laws. They’re saying, you can ask me to do this but it goes against the laws of humanity. But it’s not just saying it -- it’s taking a stand.
Kevin Benderman: When the first Gulf War broke out, I was like, “Can I do this?” But I put it all away and said, if I have to kill people I will. That’s where I was for that war, and this is where I am for this one.
To go to war I had to shut off all the emotions that made me a human. To survive in war you can’t have emotions in your way.
I remember one kid in Iraq -- it’s always kids, isn’t it? -- about 7 a.m. or so we saw him standing across the road from us holding an RPG round way up over his head -- not the launcher but just the projectile itself. The guys down the road at the checkpoint said, “What are you waiting for? Shoot him!” I just went over and got the kid to put it down. He was just trying to help us. He was trying to show us where the weapons were being hidden. So I let a superior know, and the sappers came over with some C4 and blew it all in place.
You’re always told you have the right -- no, the duty -- to disobey an illegal order. But if you actually do that, you go to jail. And if you follow orders you go to jail, like those guys I was at Ft. Lewis with.
It takes more than a $2 “Support the Troops” magnet on your car. I did some research on that, by the way -- did you know that out of that $2 you pay for a “Support the Troops” magnet, only about five cents goes to a soldier’s support organization?
Connect Savannah: And it’s made in China.
Kevin Benderman: Right. Go to Ft. Stewart right now and look at the tags on the BDUs in there, all the uniforms they sell. What does the tag say? Made in China. I understand the whole thing about the global economy and all, but I think with all the effort they’re going to and everything they ask of the soldiers, they could at least have the uniforms made in America.
Connect Savannah: How have you been treated locally since all this began? Has anyone in Hinesville voiced support?
Monica Benderman: Oh, more than you’d think. You’d be amazed. See, it’s not a political thing with us.
The whole time Kevin was at Ft. Lewis, I’d go to the post office here and the workers would always ask how he was doing. Sometimes they’d give me free stamps.
We’ve gotten at least 15,000 pieces of mail, from all over the world, from all types of people. I’d say only about five percent of the communication we’ve received has been negative.
Kevin Benderman: People here understand that soldiers have the right to valid justice, the right to have citizens understand what they’re going through, and the right not to be on welfare. Did you know there are active duty soldiers right now who are eligible for welfare and WIC? There’s a welfare office right there on Ft. Stewart.
One time Monica and I went out to eat at a restaurant here in town, and all of a sudden I heard this loud voice across the room say, “Sgt. Kevin Benderman?” I was like, OK, here it comes.
It was a guy in his thirties, white collar, nice clothes. He comes up to me and sticks out his hand and says, “I just wanted to thank you for what you’re doing.”
To comment on this story, e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. To contribute to the Benderman Legal Defense Fund, send a donation to P.O Box 2322, Hinesville, GA, 31310 or go to bendermandefense.org